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2018 Was the Year That Netflix Ruled Food TV

By adopting a ravenous approach to the food world, and relying on fresh voices to tell their stories, the streaming giant ruled the culinary TV game this year

A scene from Netflix’s hit Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
Adam Rose/Netflix

“I think one of the main reasons I like Domino’s is because I’m being told by the culinary snob patrol that I can’t like it,” says David Chang in the pilot of his Netflix series Ugly Delicious. The Momofuku chef/restaurateur is setting up a scene wherein he works a shift as a pie-maker and a delivery driver at America’s most popular pizza chain. “It’s not something I eat all the time, but it reminds me of growing up — because this is literally the pizza I grew up eating,” Chang says as he enters a suburban Domino’s location.

In the Domino’s kitchen, Chang looks like a kid in a candy store, admiring the toppings bar, the conveyor belt oven, and the digital order-expediting system. “This is very exciting for me to see,” he tells his manager during training, “because this is years and years and years of a lot of people’s efforts to make it as streamlined as possible.”

By expressing his un-ironic love of Domino’s and its delivery operation, one of the most acclaimed chefs of his generation is forcing viewers to rethink their own conceptions of “quality” in the food world. This moment and many others in 2018 helped make Netflix a singular player in the food TV space, one that is broadening the scope of culinary entertainment, and bringing new audiences into the mix with each new release.

The company that gave the world the the Upside Down, Zoya the Destroyer, and Hot Santa likes to do things differently than its peers in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. While a lot of food media companies spun off an endless stream of top-down recipe videos and edgier versions of Diners, Drive-In and Dives in 2018, Netflix went in a completely different direction by finding a group of new TV stars and building series around their unique culinary points of view. Meanwhile, the company also quietly amassed a number of excellent non-original food shows to add to its library.

With a heady mix of celebrity food crawls, no-nonsense cooking segments, and smart conversations about the legacies of the foods we love, Ugly Delicious got the year off to a roaring start. Queer Eye launched a new kind of celebrity chef in Antoni Porowski, the makeover show’s charming and effortlessly cool food expert. Nailed It!, a comedic ode to cake fails with a delightful hosting duo, became a viral sensation. Tim Burton-esque series The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell explored the craft behind show-stopping spooky desserts. The docuseries Rotten turned a seemingly snooze-worthy subject — big agriculture — into a scorching expose about American greed. The Final Table married the international fine dining scene with a high-stakes culinary competition. And Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat introduced TV audiences to the genius of Bay Area chef/author Samin Nosrat.

It’s an impressive slate for a company that previously only released two original food series: the auteur-obsessed Chef’s Table, and the Michael Pollan-starring origins-of-cooking show Cooked. Whereas those shows were serious and borderline-scholarly in nature, the 2018 class of Netflix originals presented a much more democratic approach to the world of food. The message from shows like Ugly Delicious and Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, it seems, is that good food is everywhere — in home kitchens, tiny lunch counters, open-air markets, and Michelin-starred restaurants — and the world is a better place when you know about the techniques involved, and, most importantly, who’s making it.

This eclectic roster of shows is a product of Netflix’s unusual production style. Instead of acquiring and creating content to fit demographics — an old TV term used to describe groups of people categorized by age, race, and gender — Netflix aims to appeal to niche audiences that the company refers to “taste clusters.” The biggest hits play across several taste clusters, and build steam as more of these small audience groups discover the shows that embody their specific tastes and interests. Many new Netflix series — take Nailed It! or The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, for example — were rolled out with little fanfare, but became hits as more viewers made a connection to these shows and started spreading the word throughout their social circles.

Although most of the best shows usually have a travel element of some sort, there’s really no unifying thread to Netflix’s 2018 food slate, other than the emphasis on distinctive personalities — and this, too, fits in with the company’s master plan for building a bigger audience. “There’s no such thing as a ‘Netflix show,’” chief content officer Ted Sarandos recently told New York Magazine. “That as a mind-set gets people narrowed. Our brand is personalization.”

Most of Netflix’s new food shows were also aligned with the big conversations happening this year regarding diversity and representation. But there were, however, a few missteps along the way. Although the critics generally praised Ugly Delicious, some viewers and publications took issue with the fact that the barbecue episode completely omitted African-American chefs’ contributions to the genre. A season of Chef’s Table focusing on pastry — a field that is full of lauded female chefs — only included one women out of the four people profiled. Despite its international focus, The Final Table’s grand finale focused on two North American chefs and two Australians, all of whom were white men. And the new season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee was peppered with gay jokes, as well as a condescending remark about a non-Anglo name, from host Jerry Seinfeld.

Taking all of the Netflix original output into consideration, these sour moments are relatively few and far between, and both the company and its creators seem receptive to the feedback. After a few publications (including this one) criticized the Chef’s Table series for its tendency to profile white men, the makers of that series announced two new seasons profiling more women and people of color than ever before. And while promoting Ugly Delicious at last year’s Code Conference, David Chang also addressed the issues with his show, live on-stage. “I’ve read every criticism, whether it wasn’t inclusive enough through African Americans or through women, I just know that we had one season, and we did our best, and we had no intention of trying to be exclusive,” he told Eater’s Amanda Kludt and Recode’s Peter Kafka. “And hopefully there’s a second season, and we’ll be able to do it better.” Chang and his partner Morgan Neville are currently working on that second season.

Now that Netflix has established itself as the hottest brand in food TV, its growth may depend on its ability to keep telling more stories that have never been told before. In anticipation of the release of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Nosrat hinted at this idea while pondering the future of her show (though no announcement about a second season has been made yet). “Whatever I do next, I do think that the most meaningful part of this for me was getting the opportunity to work with a lot of different people who are not historically shown on television,” Nosrat told Eater. “Not only people of color, but focusing on home cooks rather than restaurant cooking — focusing on the grannies. Any time I could, I was bringing that kind of stuff in, because I do feel like what we get to see on TV is pretty limited.”

In typically secretive fashion, Netflix is keeping much of its upcoming food TV calendar tightly under wraps. But if this year’s growth is any indication, there’s a good chance that TV audiences will be introduced to a whole new set of people, places, and delicious things in 2019.

All Year in Eater Coverage [E]